Written by Simon:
I recently started Christian counseling about my sexual brokenness and have begun reading through Breaking Free by Russell Willingham. As is also true for many of those I’ve talked to, this issue has been with us since our youth and still has power over our lives many years later. I was therefore skeptical that I would find a resource that would offer hope that wasn’t shallow or temporary, or a repeat of some ‘solution’ that hadn’t worked previously.
I’m happy to announce that I have been pleasantly surprised; it is practical, straightforward, and easy to read. It gets to the core issues and underlying belief structures that resonate with my story, and offers a path through the darkness towards freedom. My plan is to share some insights that have been helpful to me in my recovery from different sections of the book, through a series of blog posts.
The Myth of No-Fault Victimization
In this section of the book, Willingham makes two crucial points about our sexual addiction that helps me to understand and take ownership over it. The first (p.87) is that our lack of being nurtured, cared for, loved, valued, etc in our childhood was a form of trauma that we interpreted as being unlovable, unacceptable, useless, worthless, or beyond redemption. This could have happened through sins of commission, where words or actions directly or indirectly communicated those messages to us. Or they could have been through sins of omission, where the lack of care, nurture, unconditional love left us with a sense of abandonment and hopelessness that we try to combat or deal with through addictions, including CD. If a particular article, or collection of articles, or article of clothing triggers us sexually, that could be a sign that we are feeling/remembering unmet needs in childhood associated with direct or indirect abuse or neglect, and the clothing helps us feel a sense of connectness, acceptance, or nurturing. So we have eroticized the appropriate desire for love, acceptance, and intimacy through the dressing and masturbation, and it does seem to help us for a moment, right?
The problem is, this acting out has several problems associated with it that keep us in bondage to this behavior and makes it becomes addicting:
- The feeling of connectness, intimacy, pleasure, relaxation through our CD ‘ritual’ is to an imagined, pseudo-woman (ourselves CDing), not another real human who willingly and freely loves us and accepts us as we are. This realization leaves us empty, weak, and alone when our ritual/dress-up/fantasy session is over and the reality of who we really are becomes clear to us. We are longing for real connection, real intimacy, real acceptance from another person, but we substitute our fantasized and temporary CD-self instead. The feeling of shame, coupled with the temporary pleasure/relief/release from the CD experience, keeps us in the cycle until we learn to see and think differently.
- The act of creating an imaginary woman through our imagination and CD allows us to believe that we can achieve wholeness without relationship with another real person, so we don’t learn the complexities and nuances of trust, vulnerability, empathy, care, and love that are needed to achieve what we really need to break the cycle of addiction. With every failure in our relationships and the choice to run to our fantasy world, we become less likely to pursue a real woman (whom we feel will reject us anyway), and more likely to develop an increasingly elaborate version of our CD selves. We begin to believe that the only one that can meet our deepest needs is ourselves (through our pseudo-self), so it is to ourselves that we continue to run. It isn’t until we recognize that this approach doesn’t achieve the goal of intimacy and acceptance that we are longing for that we are willing to consider leaving this lifestyle.
- The acting out (through CD) to relieve the pain associated with the memory of our childhood trauma only reinforces childish and immature responses to the pain we should expect to experience as adults living in a broken world. We remain in an immature thought and behavior pattern that in itself is self-centered, shameful, and inappropriate, but also self-defeating (pp.88-92). We begin to believe we can ONLY respond to our needs through this childish behavior, so we look for opportunities to act out, albeit privately, since we know it’s socially inappropriate to play ‘sexual dress-up’ as adult men. We also can begin to believe that others should accept or even support this behavior, since we believe it meets a real need.
The second point that Willingham makes in this chapter is both liberating and challenging to me…to recognize that continuing to respond to childhood trauma in childish ways isn’t what God has called us to nor what we should aspire to as fathers, husbands, and co-workers. It is not true that our CD addiction is directly attributable to the trauma we experienced in childhood, although that’s what many of us believe. Instead, it is OUR RESPONSE to the trauma that has led to a lifestyle that we now want to be free from, and since we control our responses to life, we can focus on changing that instead (p.88).
We can, and need to, learn how to respond differently to life’s stresses and develop an appropriate self-concept that reduces the perceived need to enter our fantasy world to cope with our struggles. That process is challenging, however, because we’ve trained ourselves to believe several lies, including the notion that no one would really love us if they knew who we really were; and nothing we could ever do would be enough to earn acceptance and intimacy from our spouse, closest friends, or even God (pp.93-95). We resort to the belief then, that we’re ultimately on our own to meet our needs for love, affection, and intimacy…God can’t/won’t provide it, and neither will a (real) woman. It is this cognitive distortion that we must recognize and address if real freedom and deliverance is possible.
I’ll work through some of the thought patterns and beliefs that we must challenge and overcome in another blog post, but I’ll end this post with two that I am finding helpful to meditate upon regularly. First, if we are acting out through sexually addictive behavior, we must recognize that somewhere down deep we are telling the God of the universe, the One who loved us first, and the One who was willing to send His only Son to die for us, that what He thinks of us isn’t true. We’d rather live in a fantasy world where we can make up characters and scenarios so that we can pretend that we’re strong, lovable, and worthy instead of living in the real world where God calls us to be His image bearers so that the world can be reconciled, redeemed, and restored to Him and to each other. We must decide to take God at His Word, so that we can live the life that will bring us hope, freedom, purpose, and joy. Second, we must confront the hopelessness that we feel down deep that keeps us passive in developing healthy, life-giving, emotionally intimate relationships with those around us. If we continue to resort to private (or public) CDing, we are telling the world that we’re not willing to take off our ‘masks’ and connect with others as we really are, so we live a life of retreat, withdrawing, and running away those God calls us to pursue and run towards (e.g., our family, friends, coworkers, etc). We must believe that God is making us new (2 Cor. 5:17), completing the work He began in us (Phil 1:6), giving us a spirit of power (2 Tim. 1:7), and making us ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19). It is to this high calling that I am committed, and invite you all to join me in pursuing…a life worth living.
Willingham, R. (2010). Breaking Free: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Healing Power of Jesus. InterVarsity Press